Winter already? No.

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  • Early morning mid-October sunshine over the River Thames in London. Photo: Ian Nicholson/PA Wire.

    Spectacular sunrise over Thirsk on 16 October. Photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

    A juvenile eastern meadowlark. Photo: Alan D. Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com

    Watercoloured black-and-white photo from 1935 of an ivory-billed woodpecker. Photo by Jerry A. Payne, USDA Agricultural Research Service. Source: www.forestryimages.org

    A JCB piling up road salt at Whittlesford Depot in Cambridgeshire. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

  • Winter already? No.
    20.10.2011 14:14

     

    There is currently a lot of speculation and chatter regarding winter, and how it has arrived already.

    Well it hasn’t, notwithstanding a couple of chilly days and frosty nights, and some snow over high ground in Scotland, the far northern Pennines and the highest parts of Snowdonia.

    These are all perfectly normal occurrences for the second half of October, which often fluctuates between warm and cold. One swallow does not a summer make, nor one inch of snow a winter.

    It would be very surprising indeed if by this point in autumn we had not had a frost and those regions had not had any snow, which tends to fall at least a couple of times in every October.

    So it’s been unremarkably autumnal for two or three days rather than wintry, and the more pertinent story is actually how warm it has been this month.

    October 1st, we should recall, saw the highest October temperature ever recorded when Gravesend in Kent reached 29.9 degrees Celsius; and the Central England Temperature, a useful average measure centred around the Midlands, was 12.8 C from October 1st to 19th, which is two degrees above normal.

    Temperatures are going to lift through the rest of this week as well. The northern and western UK will have rain at times but the south and east will have some warm sunshine, with a few spots potentially reaching 18 or 19 C on Sunday. Not that it will feel particularly summery – there will be a stiff and blustery wind as well.

    As for winter itself, it’s far too early to be specific, although there is potential for at least one or two significantly cold episodes as the darkest months of the year arrive and proceed.

    Folklore has many apothegms that attempt to foretell the weather, particularly in winter. Many of them concern birds and berries.

    For example, a foregathering of flocks of field larks is taken as a sign of impending iciness. But what are field larks? Skylarks? Possibly. But they tend to flock in autumn and winter anyway. As do fieldfares, another candidate.

    It is far more likely that this portent is North American in origin and refers to the eastern meadowlark, sturnella magna, which is also known as the field lark.

    There are old books from the USA listing it with other auguries such as that telling us that geese flying southeast in Kansas foreshadow a blizzard, and that the ivory-billed woodpecker, also a North American bird (and possibly extinct), is predicting snow if it strips bark from a tree from bottom to top.

    This is a problem with some folkloric weather predictions – having been drafted overseas they may be inapplicable anyway, never mind the question of whether they actually work.

    An abundance of berries during autumn, as we seem to have among some species at the moment, is supposed to presage a severe winter, as if nature were creating a rich harvest for its fauna. But would any store of berries stay fresh for long enough?

    Nature surely is reactive rather than proactive. Or is it possible that certain weather patterns in autumn that are conducive to such proliferation happen sometimes to be followed by others that bring cold? There is scant evidence that this is the case often enough for it to be a useful guide.

    Perhaps those instances where the lore works out are remembered over those where it did not. Old-school seasonal forecasters decades ago working with twigs and buckets of seawater would be subject to much hoopla when correct but quietly forgotten when spectacularly wrong. As humans, if we look for confirmation we will find it.

    By: Stephen Davenport